Issue 26: David Brazil reviews Verity Spott
Review: Verity Spott, Coronelles: Set 1 (London: Veer Books, 2020)
In 1968, a team of virologists characterised the appearance, under electron microscopy, of a newly studied class of pathogens in an article published in Nature: “[T]here is also a characteristic ‘fringe’ of projections 200 A long, which are rounded or petal shaped … This appearance, recalling the solar corona, is shared by mouse hepatitis virus and several viruses recently recovered from man, namely strain B814, 229E and several others.”
One of the team members, David Tyrell, later recalled: “We looked more closely at the appearance of the new viruses and noticed that they had a kind of halo surrounding them. Recourse to a dictionary produced the Latin equivalent, corona, and so the name coronavirus was born.”
These scientists did the work of poets - making language - with the result that, some decades later, the speech they made is in everyone’s mouths, whether we like it or not.
Out of this time emerges Verity Spott’s book Coronelles: Set 1. No entry is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary for “coronelle,” though “coronel” is listed as a biform for “coronal” - having to do with a crown. At the end of the book, Spott acknowledges: “The name Coronelles was cooked up by James Burton” - a coinage taken up by the poet.
But what is a coronelle? Spott’s blog, twotornhalves.blogspot.com, documents the emergence of these poems in the first half of 2020, and gives some indication of their genesis. In the entry for 29 May, the poet writes: “This sequence has become a compulsion. I am writing several poems every day in this new form which the poet James Burton has suggested I call the Coronelle. I will go with that for now. The working title of this sequence is ‘I am a FREE’. The order of the poems here is chronological. This may well change.
If you'd like to read the few that came before the ones presented here see my previous blog post. I’ve not included every single poem I’ve written in this form. Some are out for repair. Some may vanish. This is work in progress, but with the compulsion of its composition comes an excited anxiety that they enter the world in some form right now.”
Spott further notes, in an entry of 15 June, “The poems included so far have mostly taken place ‘at the break of the day’” - a reference to the hymn “Lord of All Hopefulness,” frequently sung at funeral services.
Finally, in an entry of 17 October, the poet writes: “I have decided for now to allow myself to call these poems sonnets, because they are.”
This last, remarkable, note, points us toward the formal character of these poems. The title Coronelles suggests a genre or type (by the coinage of the name), as well as a series (because it is plural). “Set 1” is a further clue in this direction. Proceeding past the title page (with all the poems of the sequence overlaid on one another, and only fringes of language legible at the edges), the dedication, and a page of epigraphs, we begin to read the coronelles themselves, which turn out to be thirteen-line poems. The formal restriction of the line count recalls the classic Italian and English sonnet tradition in the background, as well as modern takes on the form like those of Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer, much closer to what Spott is doing.
Here’s the book’s first poem:
White seething hot glamour commons yesteryear.
I danced in the morning through the flowers
and the ash, yielding not to demi-plié, to
sting away the day oh, National Servent, say! I danced
in the morning when the trees
caught fire I punched out my eyes
in the clear well waters.
I stooped to the floor and I let my blood,
loved before the dawn of time put on some slap
I’ll stand with arms high
and heart abandoned no-comply kiki
like risible kings to the dawns of a haven’t summer.
Within the thirteen-line form an extremely various diction transpires - the stanza (from the Italian for “room”) becomes a space in which many sorts of contents can be set. Citations range from hymns and folksongs to Internet articles about the outbreak. Without ostentatious historicity the series is, on one hand, a daybook of the early months of the pandemic and lockdown, as in the twenty-fifth poem:
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.
Guts at dusk / the warm heart fiasco.
Pump the gear scalpel brains remoulding
zither to grate; climate neutral company;
vipers writhe in verdant
dust nudged past the pill.
Watcher you, devil our heart.
Strapons. Disagreements. Can 2020 just
chemical burns latest in search for missing persons
we do our marching to one beat
crushing the enemy under miasma, shut up bluebird
the way has been prepared for…
(Here, “Can 2020 just” concludes in aposiopesis, the rhetorical term for a failure to be able to continue in discourse.). These two poems illustrate another formal feature of the work: each thirteen-line text has an identical structure of indentation, at the fifth, seventh, and eleventh lines. These torqued sonnets don’t rhyme on end-words; rather, they rhyme on their gaps.
In conversation, Spott also described these texts as written to friends - those in the book’s dedication, but many more besides:
Today I miss the poets: The Peter Manson cactus
garden, the Frances Kruk cobweb
dispensary; going into London flying out our hands:
The wholesome queer ultraviolence Rahaline vertical assault.
A tortoise far below
skirted in rain / switched your lungs back on and then went still.
Risk calculated against life
opposed to life at risk I danced, jackyl, I hardly danced.
You can put a fly in the fridge for one minute place it on the windowsill:
Seeming dead. Rest it in your hand appearing to magic it to life. Wow.
I danced in the moon
and the stars and the sun my heart will go on, black planet! It will!
They all go “wow” and clap and their hands. The hot fly floats away
The poems in Coronelles are plainly situated in the ongoing work and conversation of a poetic community, and register the profound isolation from that community imposed by lockdown, and an attempt to think poetic work in the aftermath of a world that has been, if not destroyed, then grievously compromised.
It’s no surprise that, among Spott’s profligate citationality, melancholy texts like Argine’s “Solitudo” and the songs of John Dowland should figure. But sadness is not the basic mood of Coronelles. In fact, the through-line I see in the book begins with one of the epigraphs, a citation from a different hymn about a lord - “The Lord of the Dance”: “I danced on a Friday / When the sky turned black / It’s hard to dance / With the devil on your back”. (The other epigraphs come from an online guide to cesspits and septic tanks, from the OED entry for ‘cesspit,’ an article entitled “China and The Coronavirus Pandemic: Lessons for Communists,” and a riff on Patrick McGoohan’s famous plaint from The Prisoner: “I AM A FREE / I AM NOT MAN / A NUMBER”.)
It’s the theme of dancing that recurs throughout the poems and gives a structure to the diverse sequence - both first-person declarations like the previously cited “I danced in the morning through the flowers,” as well as the twelfth poem:
Where no horse should there be I danced like a sack
of shit, increased fibre optic reach, DID 9/11,
wrote a think piece; no one knows he’s in the sky the ecstatic
humours rose: I danced in the servatives I danced
in the self I planned
demi plié to a sassy épaulement
not consenting to live a giddy life by the land
by the law made up
for heady scratchings
we stand tall!
No turning back we found our way my immortal blind summer
unfrost cycle blathering spigot, we stood tall.
Here are the places and manners of dance as well as the distribution of the technical terms of ballet: demi-plié, fouetté, épaulement. It’s a dancing while bound: both by the constraint of the stanzaic form, but also by the time which has left the poet (and all contemporaries) more or less pent.
Spott’s prolific and restless experimentation has continually foregrounded politics and queerness. With Coronelles: Set 1, the poet has allowed a form to arise as response to an historical moment, and used that form to generate a remarkable artistic record of the time. My brief text can’t do justice to the richness of these poems, and the poetic thinking that underlies them. I count Coronelles among the most inspiring artworks I have encountered in our mean season.
David Brazil is a pastor, poet, and community organiser. He is the author of Holy Ghost (City Lights, 2017), antisocial patience (Roof, 2015), and The Ordinary (Compline, 2013). Figurae is forthcoming from The Last Books. He lives in New Orleans.
Copyright © 2021 by David Brazil, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.